tv Tavis Smiley PBS April 25, 2012 2:00pm-2:30pm PDT
tavis: it is hard to amend in the public opinion about congress could get any worse. a new book out today says things on capitol hill are even less functional than we think no. best selling author robert draper spent months examining the house of representatives and many of its members, for a much-anticipated text, "do not ask what good we do." we are glad you joined us. a conversation with robert draper, coming up right now. >> every community has a martin luther king boulevard. it is the cornerstone we all know. it is not just a street or a boulevard, but the place where walmart stands together with your community to make every day better. >> and by contributions to your
pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. --www.ncicap.org-- tavis: robert draper is a contributor for "gq" and the" new york times" magazine. his latest come out today, is called "do not ask what good we do." robert draper joins us tonight from york. good to have you back on this program. >> thanks for having me. tavis: i will start by asking
why we do not want to ask what good they do. >> the title of the book comes from a quote from one of our first congressman, a fellow named fisher, from massachusetts, who was one of congress's first great orators. he wrote the language of the first amendment. after four terms in the house, he was fed up with the partisan division, and wrote that lament to a friend. he said, "it is not a fair question in these days of faction." there was partisanship and division, but they got a lot accomplished in that first term. they set up an executive branch and a federal judiciary. for good measure, the past the bill of rights. by that measure of the partisanship that is taking place in washington today, it is more like, compared to black men.
tavis: so this is a fair question to ask today? >> i think it is. i think what i set out to do in writing this book was primarily to follow around these 87 republican freshmen, who have come to washington to shake things up. they rode in on a tea party wave. i was interested in the experience of them being in congress. about a third of them have never held an elective office before. what the book ended up being, more than anything else, was a parable of this function. tavis: is it just my historical read, the notion of freshmen coming in thinking they will turn washington upside down? president obama thought he would do this when he came to washington. turn this inside out. >> to buttress your point, it had long been held on capitol hill that freshmen were there to
be seen and not heard. in 1902, there were 42 freshmen that came in on the teddy roosevelt wave. they so quickly learned they were impotent that they formed a club called the tantalus club, an entertainment group that would entertain members of the press and other politicians. what they basically did was mocked their own powerlessness. to be fair, this group of freshmen is different. as the book details, they have had a lot of influence, i think more than the republican leadership had bargained on. by the end of it all, there were pretty much calling the shots. john boehner was more likely to follow the lead of the freshmen than the other way around. tavis: he called them a pain in my behind. is it really influence? you can have positive influence and negative influence. there are some who could argue that these guys have cost their
party a great deal with their shenanigans this first time around. >> that might be true. at the same time, john boehner became the speaker because of these 87 freshmen who came into town. he would be a minority leader if it were not for them. he recognized that it is not just a matter of gratitude towards them. there was a movement that blew them into town. the tea party movement, which different people have seen different ways, was certainly conservative. john boehner was well aware of the fact that he could either be at the head of this train or get crushed by it. speaker boehner has an expression, which is that if you say follow me when you start walking, and no one is behind you, you are not leading. you are just taking a walk. he recognized that to some degree, he would have to lead by following as speaker. the short answer is yes. they have been a big pain in the
but for them. tavis: to the movement that swt them in, i am not sure i buy this as a movement yet. there is some movement, but -- there is some momentum, but not a movement. now that they are standing for reelection, have they delivered? >> yes, so far as it goes. the problem with the movement is that the movement we are referring to is never satisfied. if there was anything i found surprising and disquieting, it was when i went to a town hall with some of these freshmen, who had very conservative voting records. if their records were blemished by failing to cut a particular discretionary program, the tea party that showed up to the town halls let them have it. i was with a freshman from corpus christi, texas.
he had said in the course of this town hall that the reality is, in a situation of divided government, you have to compromise. the guys in the audience stood up and yelled, "we did not send you there to compromise." every time these tea party freshmen are in any way construed to be derelict from the wishes of the movement, the let them have in -- have it. they definitely took the republican party and the house of representatives much further to the right than we've seen in a long time. tavis: i want to read a quote that comes out of your text that sets of this question and want to ask. the question is what to target congress to a text. they have a 9% approval rating.
it is the easiest target in town. i will read this quote. "yet something deeper is being expressed when a democracy holds its greatest responsibility to the collected officials to reflect the public mood. perhaps americans cannot decide what they want, having been agitated by the internet, cable news, and talk radio. the outcry is plaintive, a plea for one america again." is congress just an easy target? or is there something here that people are longing for, less by partisanship? are these guys capable of it? >> the paradox is what the "alludes to. congress, particularly the house of representatives, is the most democratic institution we have.
they are the most acutely hot wired to the public passion. it says something is comforting about our society that the people who are closest to us, the political officials, the ones we most regularly elect, are the ones who are most angry. i think that the public themselves have been whipped from one thing to another. after the hope and change moment election, inma's 2009 and 2010, the public began to be dissatisfied, and even whipped into a frenzy against the affordable health care act, the stimulus, and other things. they decided then they wanted the opposite of that, and rolled into town 87 freshman, believing they would have a clear mandate to reverse everything the obama
administration has enacted. i do not think that is what the 2010 election was about. it may be was about applying the brakes about some dissatisfaction. it was not about doing a 180 degree term anymore and then 2008 was a turn from everything that happened in the bush of distraction. i did not perceive this as a layout of a plan. this is the one part of a branch of government that the republicans control to such a degree that the republicans have anything to use as a point of a spear against the obama administration. it is the house. to the extent that there was going to be political warfare, the house was going to be at the center of it. tavis: let me offer a
clarification. nobody seems to like these guys these days. i was not casting aspersion on your book. >> i get it. furthermore, it has proved to appear to be more of a layup than before. after all, the last democrat in the white house, bill clinton -- speaker newt gingrich worked with clinton on a lot of things, including welfare reform. when a republican president was in the white house, nancy pelosi worked with him on immigration measures, energy measures. this is really the first time in a while the we have seen the house controlled by a different party and using it as political warfare rather than governing. tavis: here comes a politically incorrect question. it may not be the last. but it is the first for this
conversation tonight. any of this, or how much of this, has to do with the fact that we have an african american president? there are progressives that will draw a direct line to the fact that it has never been this bad. the lines have never been drawn so starkly. no one has ever stood up and said to a standing president, while they were sitting in the house, "you lie." there were people in congress holding signs. you make the case it has never been this bad. how much of that has to do with wanting to make sure, as mitch mcconnell said, that the president loses, that he does now have a chance at all at a second term? >> i do think there is a great attempt within the republican conference of the house of representatives to stop barack obama. but i do not think the performance of the house, that
you can draw a line from the color of the president picks again. there are elements of the tea party that have erisa's component. i do think that. i have met a lot of people in the tea party. i do not believe all of them are the proponents of them are racist. but is there an element to that? i would say the content we have seen for president obama cannot be attributed to anything other than that. >> if not his race, what is the content based upon? as much as king ridge and clinton did not get along, they got stuff done together? what is this contempt based upon, if not race? >> let us recall, kravis, 0 -- tavis, when bill clinton was president, all the slick willie stuff said about him, accusing him of being involved in a friend's suicide. i think what is different is not
so much the difference in skin color. i think it is the difference in the political climate, where people are whipped up into more of a frenzy by the media, by blogs and outside groups. division is rewarded these days. conversely, moderation is not. people who try to reach across the aisle, who tried to get things done, 10 to get punished. there is a striking moment in my book about a republican congresswoman who is definitely a reagan republican. in today's climate, she would certainly be termed a moderate. she learned that some group she had never heard of, redstate.com, had gone after her in a blog that said, " missouri tea party, here is a
primary." she had not always voted the hard right line when it came to search and spending cuts. that is fairly typical. i think the content -- cmtemp -- contempt is exacerbated by external forces. >> it is not content for the president. it is contempt about the tea party. i come from the state of louisiana. it is my home state. our congressman is up against the same thing. the guy is not a liberal, yet lugar is facing the same challenge. he is one of the strongest foreign policy experts the senate has ever known. he has a fight on his hands in indiana. those external forces are just as powerful outside of washington as they appear to be
inside. >> senator lugar, i saw an advertisement from an outside group saying that senator lugar is a statesman, but not a true conservative. it is as if the word statesman has no currency anymore, which i find lamentable. tavis: i think the media has been very complicit in this. you talk about talk radio and cable television and beyond, blogs. you have with this thing up into such a frenzy and such a divide in this country. would things be as bad as they are on the hill, would congress be as dysfunctional as they are, if the media were not drawing lines in the sand outside of the capitol building? >> the short answer is i do not think things would be as bad. but it is not just a matter of drawing lines. even in the more neutral networks, as i was saying before, extremism is rewarded.
one of the guys i mentioned in my book, the freshman from texas, made the comment that he does not get on television as much as his more extreme colleagues. that is because he is not a hair on fire kind of guy, as he put it. hair on fire guys are rewarded, like alan west, who says a lot of outlandish things, but isn't equal opportunity offender. he is always on call to be on those shows. joe walsh is a right of center tea party freshman from illinois. same thing. that kind of behavior is rewarded. at the same time, sitting in the audience, that is all you hear. you hear people from the far left and the far right. you begin to have an appreciation for why it is that our governing institutions cannot come together and get things done. tavis: someone to talk about "we
the people." these folks do in fact get elected by somebody. you are right this last class was a pretty large class of freshmen, 87 freshmen. that is not typical in washington, as you well know. typically, incumbents get reelected. you do not want to beat up on the american people, but we have complicity. what role do the american people have in of vetting this dysfunction on the hill? >> one answer will be we will find out in november. after all, congress had, a few months ago, an approval rating of 9% for a republican- controlled house. republicans in the house had an approval rating of 19%. will that affect votes in november? we shall see. the incumbent advantage is not quite as strong as a used to be. there are some things that are good about that and some things
that are not. the bottom line is if the public register's dissatisfaction, and even outright disdain, it is incumbent on them to clean house. they have the tools to do that every other year. tavis: one member of congress said to you "i did not come to washington to be part of a team." we have members of the house who represent us in these districts across the country. they run for reelection the most. i take your point about our proximity to them. but when they get there, they are making and passing national legislation. how much does the territorial nature of trying to give your own district the hookup, looking out for your own people back home, and you do not see yourself as part of a team -- how does that psychology impact the debate in washington?
>> it always will. i think there is always that tension between parochial and national interest, which to see represented in the body of 435. the guy you were referring to, who the "in my book is from, and idaho freshman named role labrador -- raoul labrador, he is very conservative, and a former immigration lawyer. his point was he did not come to washington to immediately do what the republican leadership wanted him to do. he came to washington because he believed the leadership on both sides of the aisle was taking america off the rails. and have a certain appreciation for that level of plainspoken as. i think labrador is the exception that tests the rule of a number of freshmen. he is someone who does try to forge solutions and has worked
with democrats as well as moderate republicans on immigration issues, for example. that is one of the paradoxes that you see when people come to town. they come, often, running on national issues. that would happen in 2010. but then you see a number of tea party freshman who have districts that abut the mississippi river. the mississippi was swollen with flood waters last year. suddenly, a number of these freshmen in congress themselves representing districts that were literally on the water, and were suddenly in need of emergency aid and federal aid, the kind of federal aid they vehemently opposed. they realized there were certain approach to issues the would have to trump the more national philosophy about the limited role of government. you saw a lot of these guys writing letters to the federal government, petitioning them for
federal aid that they would have opposed in other districts. tavis: 1/3 of these freshmen have never held public office before. nobody wants to run as a washington insider. that all want to run as an outsider. how much of that does impact the dysfunction on capitol hill when you have people there who, first of all, do not even know where the bathroom is? they have never written legislation. they have never passed legislation. how much of that gets in the way? >> it has an effect. three of the five freshmen i have spent a lot of time with had no prior legislative experience, had never run for office before. a couple of them in particular were behind the eightball for at least half of the legislative section. there were still learning
parliamentary tactics. there were still hiring staff. they were still learning how to craft the bills. they just did not have possession of the facts, when it came to particular issues. they relied heavily on outside groups that would basically tell them how to vote, and they would do so. having said that, this is not -- you could also make an argument that there is a lot to be said for fresh faces and fresh forces. democrats elected nine freshmen as well. democrats, much more than republicans, have benefited from these huge waves. in 1932, when franklin roosevelt came to power, 131 democratic pressure came with him. we have seen it on both sides. tavis: i do not want to put you in the same sentence as jack abramoff. he said one of the ways they
succeeded was to pick of freshman the moment they hit town. how much impact as this function on the hill have to do with the lobbyists getting to them before they can even get their heads straight in trying to pass good public policy? >> there was some of that, definitely. a texas congressman -- because he came in late, to a recount, he did not have possession of a lot of facts. he would stand before industry groups and he said he got anxiety dreams that he walked outside and was not wearing pants. you were going to be the guys to tell me whether i am wearing my pants. you make sure i am voting the correct way. but the reality is that it is not like a lot of these conservative freshmen needed to be bought off by conservative groups. they were already there. there is 1 south carolina freshman, jeff duncan, who would go to his local businesses and say, "do you have cash reserves
to are not spending? if you do, how can i help you spend them? i can repeal obamacare." he was preaching to the choir. while it makes sense to grab the skies while they are green and wet behind the ears and not fully conversant on the issues, incidentally, the tea party freshmen were already aware the lobbying groups wanted them to be. tavis: the new book by robert draper is all the talk in washington now. it is called "do not ask what good we do: inside the u.s. house of representatives." congratulations once again. some fine work. >> thanks for having me. tavis: that is our show tonight. be sure to download our new app at the app store. as always, keep the faith. >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at pbs.org.
tavis: join me next time with iconic children's author judy bloom. -- blume. >> every community has a martin luther king boulevard. it is the cornerstone we all know. it is not just a street, but a place where walmart stands together with your community to make everyday better. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. >> be more. >> be more.